Animal Collective on How Their 'Beautiful, Psychedelic' Audiovisual Album 'Tangerine Reef' Came to Be

Gesi Schilling
Animal Collective

Considering Animal Collective's first visual album, 2010's Oddsac, took years to complete, it's a minor miracle that their latest one, Tangerine Reef, came together in just one year.

While Oddsac was an experimental art film toeing the line between Stan Brakhage's Dog Star Man and the trippy fantasy sequences in Led Zeppelin's The Song Remains the Same, this new one looks closer to what George Lucas might do if he dropped acid and decided to create an neon-drenched sci-fi universe bereft of humans.

But the strange thing is, despite looking far more otherworldly than Oddsac, Tangerine Reef is, in fact, more grounded in reality.

The audiovisual album consists of underwater footage -- entirely free of CGI and special effects – courtesy art-science duo Coral Morphologic (marine biologist Colin Foord and musician J.D. McKay) that's paired with an original soundtrack from Animal Collective.

Even though Tangerine Reef came together shockingly fast for the fastidious indie outfit, its origins trace back to 2010, when Coral Morphologic saw Oddsac in Miami and slipped AC's Deakin (Josh Dibb) a DVD. Impressed with what he describes as their "really beautiful macro videography" -- which reminded him and fellow Animal Collective scuba enthusiast Geologist (Brian Weitz) of the visually stunning sea life documentaries of French filmmaker Jean PainlevĂ© – the duo and Animal Collective stayed in touch over the years, meeting up whenever their tours took them to Miami and occasionally diving together.

"We'd been talking about collaborating for years," Dibb tells Billboard. "And then they wanted to do this thing at the Borscht Film Festival (in Miami in 2017). It seemed like good timing for Brian, Dave (Portner, aka Avey Tare) and I, and we wrote the music for it pretty quickly before the event."

But what was intended to be a one-off event for Animal Collective – music performed live as the Coral Morphologic film played -- turned into a full-length official release; Tangerine Reef is out now in audio and visual album form on the band's site.

In a conversation with Billboard, Dibb explained how this quickie collab with two friends turned into a full project, why exposure to ocean life keeps him centered and whether he's hopeful or pessimistic about the safety of fragile coral reefs on our increasingly endangered planet.

So why did you decide to make this an official release?

It was meant to be that one event, but Dave and Brian and I were psyched on the music, and we tried to record that show. But the nature of the noise in the room and the way people were absorbing it, [the audio] didn't seem that usable. So I help run a studio up here in Baltimore, and we decided to get together without any real plans – other than it would be good to document [the music] – and we essentially took a few days and did four or five run-throughs of the Miami set. And rather than focusing on each song and getting really fussy about each track or individual arrangement, we played what was essentially a live record. Initially we figured we'd give it to Colin and Jared (Coral Morphologic) to sync up with the film, but once it was done we were really into it. They were really into it, too, and we checked into Domino [the label] if they were psyched on it, and they were. We'd been mulling over [collaborating] for some time, but this happened spontaneously and organically. When we make full-length records we like to get pretty deep into the arrangements, but this was very relaxed.

And Panda Bear wasn't involved – was that just a matter of distance, as he lives overseas?

Yeah mostly distance issues. He's been focused on recordings he's working on, and it was for this single festival thing. When it comes to commitments that involve him flying oversea, and the budget, it makes sense. [This project] was more the organic nature of who was close.

What are you hoping people take away from this?

I hope people see this as this incredible, beautiful, psychedelic thing and also realize there's a part of our world that maybe they weren't aware of. I'm curious if people see it as a document of nature or just a weird trippy thing to look at [laughs].

You have a song called "Hip Sponge" on this. Was that SpongeBob related?

[Laughs] No, I don't think it was although certainly we all enjoy that show. More like an ocean sponge thing.

I have to ask, have you seen the video where someone pairs audio from every Animal Collective album with clips from SpongeBob SquarePants? It's pretty incredible.

I have not seen that. I'll check it out.

So you're a scuba diver – has that been a lifelong thing?

I started when I was 17, 18, because a close friend of my mother's was a dive master who offered for the two of us to get certified cheaply. So it was vaguely on my radar, and I got certified at 18 down in North Carolina. Brian had a similar thing, he got certified at 16, 17, and did some diving in college when he was down in Belize. We had never really talked about it, but in 2006 we ended a tour in New Zealand and somehow diving came up. Brian said, "You know, there's a dive spot called Poor Knights which is in Jacques Cousteau's top 10 places to go. I haven't been diving in a long time, when this tour is over you and I should go and make a trip of it." So we did it and when we came out of the water after the first dive we were like, "okay we gotta do this again." And then we did a dive tour off the coast of Mexico; the boat goes 24 hours nonstop before it gets to a set of uninhabited islands, and you spend six days cruising around the island diving in these little spots. You only leave the boat to dive. It was a crash experience of exceptional diving, which I feel lucky to be able to do, and at that point I was hooked. Brian and I made a commitment since then to -- no matter what it going on -- set aside money to do something like that.

That sounds exhausting. Or is it more relaxing?

It's both. It's really exhausting -- diving is a deceptively strenuous activity. After the third or fourth day you wake up and your whole body is sore. Usually the first dive is at 5 a.m. and you do like four a day, and the last dive happens at dusk, sometimes going off into the night a bit. But no matter how exhausting it is, I find it really rejuvenating for my entire being. Mental, spiritual alignment -- not to get too out there -- but it does a number for it. Before a couple dive trips, I've found myself in some of my more frazzled mental states -- then I forced myself to do the trip and came out feeling really great. It's a reset.

Have you encountered a lot of damage from pollution or overfishing during your dives?

I grew up in a fairly conscious family so I was aware of what was going on in the planet. But I remember diving a site and there was a guy maybe 30 years older than me talking about diving in this area. And I was like "this is really amazing!" and he was like "yeah you should've been here 30, 20 years ago." I asked him what he meant and he said, "It's visible. You see spots that looked one way in the '70s and now they're gone." So I started doing more reading on the reality on overfishing, which I find the most upsetting. The most visceral thing, the last trip Brian and I took, the dive was off the coast of Myanmar for five days. There are laws off Myanmar [to protect the environment] but they don't really have the money to enforce them, I guess. We would show up at diving sites that had just been dynamited, which is a fishing practice that is pretty unreal. Fisherman just throw lit dynamite off the side of the boat and watch fish float up. So we would dive down and see coral reef blasted apart and fish carcasses floating through water.

Or we'd see a pod of dolphins off the boat always moving from the boat when we'd come close, which is unusual. Every other boat I've been on in my life, the dolphins love coming close and will surf the waves of boats, which is amazing to see. So I asked someone on the crew and they were like, "Oh yeah up here they hunt dolphins." So you see real repercussions. But I've also seen really beautiful stuff. And I know it's a very privileged and specialized thing to do -- and I'm normally not a fan of that stuff – but I've learned so much about what's happening on our planet as a result of doing it. And then I get to talk to other people about [these issues]. Whenever someone finds out I dive inevitably they ask, "Well aren't you afraid of sharks?" And that starts a whole conversation about the reality of sharks and whether they're worth being afraid of and how much they're being killed, which is a horrendous amount, and the impact it has on the environment. It feels beneficial to me to be able to have these conversations.

How do you see things now, in terms of awareness about environmental issues or lack thereof?

It's so hard for me to tell about anything in the world anymore. Depending on what I'm reading or the sources I'm looking to I can feel incredibly hopeful -- I feel a lot more people are aware of these things.

Starbucks is phasing out plastic straws, for instance.

Yeah, you hear conversations about places getting rid of plastic straws, which is great. In my most pessimistic states, I'm like, nobody gets it, but then you hear that and you're like okay, somebody gets it. Somebody gets it enough to make a decision like that. But I don't really know which way the tide is turning; it's a confusing time. It almost feels like everything is happening at once. There are people working toward making the world -- what seems to me -- a better place, and that is gaining energy and steam, but then there's another side of destruction and not caring that is gaining steam. And I don't know what's winning.